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Updated
October 22, 2006

 

Verdict is in, but who is really guilty?

I hang my head in shame.

Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain, two local Muslim men who were minding their own business until the FBI came into their lives, have been convicted of supporting terrorism, of all things.

Convicted by a jury of my peers. Not necessarily their peers, but my peers, meaning ordinary middleclass people from upstate New York, who sat patiently for 12 days and listened to evidence that in my opinion was an embarrassment to our country, or should have been an embarrassment to our country, and then sat for another 3 1/2 days and discussed that evidence before arriving at their verdict.

Guilty.

Guilty of conspiring to do something that the two probably did not understand, that in any event they never dreamed of doing until an FBI undercover operative tricked them into it (an exchange of check for cash) and that they were so sure was OK they insisted on putting it in writing.

They were even found guilty of providing support to a terrorist organization fighting in Kashmir that one of them kept telling the FBI's snitch, who was secretly recording everything, that he didn't know anything about and that the other one thought was a musical group.

Such is the fear of Muslim terrorism, I guess. Such is the irrationality that has seized us since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Such is the determination not to take any chances.

That we expend God knows what resources—in FBI agents, translators, hidden recorders, missile experts—to play what amounts to an elaborate prank on two unsuspecting Muslim men just to seeik they will fall for it, which they only partial did.

The bizarre thing is that the two, far from being terrorists or terroris sympathizers, are not even radical within the Islamic universe. The, are altogether moderate. In 51 hours of secretly taped conversations that the FBI produced for our delectation (and we don't know how many more hours that didn't make the cut), not once did they advocate violence, not once did they express admiration or support for al-Qaida.

On the contrary, one of then counseled the FBI's snitch, a Pakistani con-man, to stay away from the people with whom he was supposedly dealing "ammunitions," including a shoulder-fired missile which was an FBI prop deployed in this prank. He argued that Islam would spread by Muslims doing good.

The other urged support for refugee women and children in Kashmir, if the snitch wanted ta help Kashmir, and in an old diary that the FBI confiscated and translated he supported parliamentary government as against Islamic extremism.

And yet a jury convicted them. Of course I wanted to talk to the jurors after they were discharged, to ask them what went through their heads, and I pursued them out through the parking garage next to the courthouse, down on Broadway in Albany, for that purpose, but they wouldn't talk. They got in their cars and drove off, so I got no satisfaction in that department.

But I will say this: Our president is very free in his use of the word "evil" to describe the forces that threaten the United States, and I don't disagree with him on that, but what would you call a three-year effort by our own government to dupe two humble law-abiding immigrants and devastate their families if not evil?

Yassin Aref, a Kurdish refugee from Iraq, has a wife and four children, ranging in age from 11 down to just under a year, all of them dependent on him for support.

Mohammed Hossain, an American citizen originally from Bangladesh, has a wife and six children, ranging in age from 13 also down to just under a year, and all of them likewise dependent on him and on his hole-in-the-wall pizza shop.

Neither of the men, I repeat, was doing anything whatsoever to threaten this country or to support others who might threaten this country.

But the FBI tricked them, a jury bought the trick, and they now face some 20 years of incarceration each. And not in the county jail but most likely in a maximum-security federal prison in Illinois or Colorado, as supporters of terrorism.

What do you think will become of their wives and children? How will they support themselves? How will they live? Some of the children are quite Americanized, I understand, but the wives are not. Not at all.

Think about it. Think about yourself in that position. Living in a foreign land, trying to function in a foreign language, facing what they face.

I have spent a little time with the two men, and they both strike me as decent—Aref religious, thoughtful and scholarly, Hossain, self-effacing, unsophisticated, hardworking.

They came to this country full of hopes, and they broke no laws until the FBI very elaborately led them to do so, if you think they broke laws at all, which I really don't.

So if we're going to talk about evil, is it evil what the FBI did to these men and their families? Is it evil what the U.S. attorney's office did in prosecuting the case? I don't have to tell you what I think. If evil means anything, it has to mean smashing people's lives for no legitimate reason.

I would like say something to them, if by chance they get to read this in their isolation cells in the Rensselaer County Jail, where they await sentencing.

Yassin and Mohammed: I hope you have the strength to endure what you now face. I suspect you do, that you will find the strength in your religious faith, a faith that I do not share, but that is obviously a large part of your lives.

The time may come when Congress will pass a resolution apologizing to you and others like you who got swept up in the fear that followed 9/11, just as it passed a resolution apologizing to the Japanese-Americans who got swept up in the fear that followed Pearl Harbor, but that will probably come too late to do you any practical good. Your lives will have inched away by then, and your children will be long grown.

I hope they grow up able not to hate America, just as I hope you too are able not to hate America.

It is just your great misfortune that you were who you were at this time and in this place, that you were brown-skinned, bearded Muslim men speaking in foreign accents, in Albany, after the attacks of 9/11. The local FBI office needed to prove itself in the new War on Terror, and you were it. As simple as that.

I am very sorry for you and your families, and as presumptuous as it may be, I apologize to you on behalf of my country.

Good luck.

Carl Strock can be reached at 395-3085 or by e-mail at carlstrock@dailygazette.com.

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